This week, I read historian Jeff Madrick’s The Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present. Age of Greed is a close and infuriating look at the men who, through their corruption, hypocrisy, and ever-widening power, led the financialization—and undermining—of the US economy. From Milton Friedman to Alan Greenspan to a score of others, the protagonists of every destructive phase of American financial capitalism walk across Madrick’s pages, from hostile takeovers to collateralized debt obligations. Madrick summed up his thesis neatly at a lunch I attended on Monday: “The financial community has been working against the interests of the real economy for four decades.”
And, as a timely update, there’s Joe Nocera’s column on the political history of the Glass-Steagal Act. It shows just how unlike the Great Depression are US politics during the Great Recession.
There’s a first-rate op-ed in the Bellingham Herald authored by a large group of doctors and health care professionals. The physicians make a strong case for rejecting massive coal exports from the county. Here a taste:
As physicians, our concern is primarily for the health of our patients. We are aware that coal trains traveling through our communities and the massive bulk cargo ships offshore would emit significant amounts of diesel particulate pollution. There are irrefutable links between these pollutants and cardiovascular and respiratory disease, reproductive health issues and malignancy, with no “threshold value” for impacts on human health. Much like cigarettes, a little exposure is bad and more is worse. We are also concerned about the coal dust that blows off in amounts of 500 pounds per car from these trains of more than 100 cars. Proponents would have us not worry about the dust as “most of it” will blow off before it gets to Whatcom County. With the length and frequency of these trains, that is not reassuring, as even a fraction of the estimated dust lost would be unacceptable.
Plus, there’s a must-read editorial in the Wall Street Journal on bicycling trends. They’re writing about NYC, but the conclusions are relevant to communities across North America.
There have been cheesy distortions of cycling as a trendy, elite activity—to link bike paths to ongoing gentrification, and claim the city is catering to a hipster fringe.
You want to see what a fraud that argument is? Get on a bike and ride. For every Spandexed obsessive tucked on a $3,000 carbon fiber frame you’ll see 100 people of every imaginable background just trying to get to work, do their job, have fun with their kids, safely spin from A to B.
The revival of urban cycling in this country follows a fairly predictable pattern: nervousness and ridicule, followed by the realization that the truth never matches the fear-mongering. The supposed choice between bikes and everyone else is a bogus choice. More bikes in a city doesn’t merely benefit riders; it reduces congestion, saves money, improves quality of life, elevates the experience. No one returns from a city and says, “Oh, it was great—except for all the biking.”
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Finally, take a quick read about Minot, North Dakota. To paraphrase Bill McKibben, it is important to remember this: 10,000 people being evacuated to avoid a flood that is predicted to top the historical record by 5 full feet is just a freak accident. It is not connected to other freak weather events that have been ravaging North America and the globe. After all, no single weather event can ever be directly tied to climate change.
According to The New York Times, a growing number of academics believe that reasoning is mostly used to win arguments, not to “find truth.” If you’ve got the time, read this academic paper that summarizes the evidence.
The idea that humans are social reasoners — and that we use reason to influence others, or decide whether others should influence us — goes a long way to explain a number of quirks and flaws in the way we think. Like, why we’re actually pretty bad at abstract logic, but much better at reasoning in social contexts or in groups. Or why ad hominem attacks and appeals to authority are so effective. Or why we have a “confirmation bias” that causes us to ignore or explain away factual evidence that doesn’t support our arguments. Or why in practice we often use reasoning to justify our intuitions, rather than to evaluate and correct them.
Sure, it’s awfully useful that reasoning sometimes helps us stumble on things that are actually true. But that’s mostly a useful side effect; the main evolutionary function of reasoning is to win over others to our side, and to decide whether it’s advantageous to accept others’ arguments. Truth is somewhat beside the point.
Mostly entertaining stuff from me today. Here’s a video on how green your internet is: